Design & DIY

Go eco-friendly with this classic desk

desk-with-drawers-in-pale-wood Photobac/Shutterstock

Simple appeal, traditional joinery and minimal environmental impact all make this desk a classic project. I made it out of air-dried white pine and worked mostly using hand tools, with the hope that I was launching an heirloom into history that would outlive me. We’ll have to see how its story works out, but I do know something for sure: the design performs well as a home for household paperwork. It offers organized storage for odds and ends, and takes up minimal floor space. I made it with as many “green” concepts as possible.

You can make this desk out of any wood, but if you plan to use the same traditional joinery and hand-tool approach that I did, you’ll find most varieties of softwoods easiest to get along with. Also, keep in mind that while knots look attractive, they do make the wood more difficult to plane and chisel by hand. As you cut project parts, arrange knots so they don’t land where mortises, tenons or other details end up.

I used locally-cut pine to reduce the desk’s carbon footprint. But to take it even further, you could attempt to harvest your own wood.

Wondering about some of the thicker than usual parts in my design? I planed all the rough lumber for this project by hand. That explains the appearance of 7/8″-thick wood on the materials list. It’s what you get after hand-dressing typical 1″-thick rough lumber. That said, very little of the design needs changing if you’re using standard, ready-milled, 3/4″-thick material.

Built like a barn

Over the years, I’ve worked in more than a few barns, and the joinery I’ve seen in them fills me with admiration. That’s why I’ve included traditional joinery features in both large buildings and small projects such as this desk. The pegged mortises and tenons, square pegs and tusk tenons all came from this same inspiration. Start work on your desk by preparing the outer legs, inner legs, skirts (front, rear and side) and leg braces (side and rear).

You’ll also need to edge-glue enough wood to make the two oversized 23 1/2″ x 29 1/2″ drawer bank panels. Sand these flat and smooth after taking them out of the clamps, but don’t cut them to final size yet; custom trimming comes later.

First steps

The plans show how I joined the legs and skirts with 3/4″-wide x 3″-tall x 1 1/4″-deep pegged mortise-and-tenon joints at the top corners. This step is the best place to start. Since these mortises are open at the top, it’s not difficult to chop them out using a mallet and chisel. Prepare matching tenons on the ends of the skirts and bring them together with the legs for a trial fit. As you work, remember that there’s no side skirt on the left side of the desk. The front and back legs on that side are connected with the drawer bank panel that you’ll add later. Also, notice how the two inner legs interlock with the front and rear skirts using half-lap joints. Prepare these features now, except the holes for the wooden pegs; they will come later. The plans show how the solid-wood drawer bank panels join with the legs using rabbet joints—7/8″ x 1″ rabbets for the outer legs, and 7/8″ x 1/2″ ones for the inner legs. Cut these rabbets now, then assemble all legs and skirts temporarily with clamps.

Now you have some measuring to do. Carefully position the pair of legs on the left the same distance apart as the pair on the right, then measure the length and width of the drawer bank panel required to fit in between. Cut these panels to size and glue them into the rabbets on the legs. The idea is to create two large drawer bank side assemblies. Sand these flat and smooth on their outside surfaces, then bring them together with the other legs and skirts. Finally, to fit the side and rear leg braces, measure the space between the legs that the braces will span, then prepare shoulders with the required distance between them.

Next, cut 1 1/4″-wide x 1 5/8″-tall mortises that go right through the legs, creating a snug fit around the tenons on the ends of the braces. Bring the legs and braces together completely (without glue) when the fit is perfect, then mark and bore holes for the tapered pegs that lock these joints together. The plans show what this arrangement needs to look like.

I tackled the final assembly of the desk base in two phases: glue-up first, followed by peg installation. Also, I recommend rounding all prominent corners before going any further. Rounded corners soften the look of the design, and also help edges and the finish resist wear better.

Start by assembling the two right-side outer legs into a single unit (connected by the right-side skirt at the top and the side leg brace farther down). Set this assembly aside to dry. Slip the front and back skirts down into the notches at the top of the right-hand drawer bank side assembly. Tilt the left-hand drawer bank side assembly upright, over the ends of the tenons on the front and rear skirts. Complete the main frame by placing the pair of right-hand legs you assembled previously onto the tenons on the ends of the front/rear rails. As you do this, don’t forget to install the rear leg brace; it has to go in at the same time.

After you clamp the parts tightly, install the eight drawer bank rails on the front and back of the drawer bank. Secure these with #10 x 2 1/4″ screws set into counterbored holes. You can cover them later with square wooden pegs. Eventually, you’ll also need to add drawer guides extending from the front to the back drawer rails, but leave them off for now.

Let the glue dry completely, then drill 5/16″-diameter holes through the mortise-and-tenon joints for the wooden pegs that will reinforce them. I used shop-cut lengths of hardwood for pegs, sawn to a 5/16″ x 5/16″ square cross-section tapered on the end with a chisel, hammered into the round holes, then sawn flush. Complete the desk base by adding anchor blocks for securing the desktop, then sand or plane all joints flush.

Building the top and cubby

The top is nothing more than a wide slab of 11/2″-thick pine, edge glued together. To minimize seasonal expansion and contraction of the top, choose boards with growth rings as parallel as possible with each board face. To enhance appearance, I also applied optional edging strips on all edges of the top. Drive screws into oval shaped holes in the edging strips, to allow for movement of the desktop across its width. Later on, the cubby top fastens to the top with screws driven from underneath, while the top is secured with screws driven up through holes in the anchor blocks. But for now, just plane and sand the top. Drill later.

Start by preparing the cubby back, sides, top, shelves and dividers. The plans show how the sides are curved along their front edges. Prepare this feature now, along with the dados that secure the ends of the shelves and the top ends of the dividers. To keep things simple and rustic, I used screws to join cubby parts, covered with square hardwood pegs. Taper the pegs’ tips, then tap them into the countersunk screw holes along with a little glue. Cut these pegs with a flush-trim saw when the glue has dried, then sand flush.

The cubby doors are optional, but they do add a lot to the overall appearance of the desk. If you think so too, rough out stock for the door stiles, rails and dividers now. I joined the door frame corners with mitre joints and glue. The dividers fit into notches cut with a handsaw and chisel. The glass fits into a rabbet groove in the back of the door frames, held in place with wooden strips glued lightly.

Drawer work

I love handcut dovetails, but the traditional orientation of pins and tails makes them harder to admire than they should be. That’s why I reoriented the dovetails on these drawers to show the trademark dovetail triangles front and centre. I’ll admit itÂ’s a little quirky, and any other drawer joinery will work fine. If you take a more conventional corner-joinery route, remember that you may need to adjust the lengths of the sides, front and back if you go with rabbeted corners, biscuits or butt joints.

In keeping with the traditional theme, I set each drawer on a single hardwood runner with a dado groove cut in the centre. These runners slide over a hardwood drawer guide fastened to the bottom of each drawer opening.

Prepare your drawers now, planing or sanding them down to create a 1/16″ to 1/8″ gap all around each opening. Next, make matching pairs of drawer runners and guides that slide well across each other, then fasten the runners to the underside of the drawers. Wooden drawer runners will take some time to make, but the all-wood construction is worth it. Paste wax on the hardwood makes the parts slide so much better.

Anchor the drawer guides into the desk opening if you’re using the wood-on-wood approach, which can be tricky. The position of the guides determines where each drawer sits in the opening, so location is key. Cut the drawer guides to length so they fit between the rails, then slide one drawer and its guide into position. Arrange the drawer so it has clearance on all sides, then drive one screw into each end of the drawer guide to lock it in place. You may need to sand the drawer guides and runners and apply more wax for the drawer to slide well.

Finishing up

There are many ways to finish this desk. I used brush-on urethane, hand-rubbed with pumice and rottenstone, to create a glass-smooth surface. Penetrating finishes, such as polymerized tung oil or wipe-on polyurethane, are options that eliminate the need for cleaning up brushes. Drill holes in the desktop for securing the cubby, then mount the top assembly to the leg frame.

Finally, pull up a chair and be the first of many, many people to use your desk over the generations.

Tapered pegs

I incorporated tapered pegs to cover the many screw joints in this project. They are simple to achieve and their looks surpass the minimal effort required.

1. Pre-drill screw holes with a tapered countersinking bit, then drive the screws.
2. Use a chisel to taper the tip of hardwood stock, then cut the pegs slightly long.
3. Apply a little glue in the holes, then carefully tap the pegs in place.
4. Trim the pegs flush using a flush-trim saw after the glue dries.

What makes this green?

When I designed and built this desk, I used some key approaches for reducing my shop’s environmental impact. Keep them in mind as you design your next project.

1. Use locally cut, air-dried lumber According to research by the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, it takes 550 per cent more energy to produce kiln-dried lumber than to prepare air-dried wood. Since energy use almost always creates a significant environmental impact, the less we use, the better. For this project, I cut down and air-dried the wood myself.

2. Durability by design The longer your projects remain in active use, the less environmental impact they have per year. A strong design in a style that continues to look good saves resources and energy while also building a heritage that increases in value as time goes on. And you are keeping poorly built furniture from overwhelming the landfills; I hope to make this desk a family heirloom.

3. hand-tool techniques Power tools open up wonderful possibilities, but this doesn’t come without cost. Every time you use a chisel, handsaw or plane, you’re saving electricity while also producing less noise and dust. Hand tools also require far fewer resources to produce in the first place. Another benefit? You get exercise using them.

4. Choose non-toxic finishes Water-based and penetrating-oil finishes don’t release harmful vapours into the air, nor do they require solvents for cleaning up. One of the greenest wood finishes is hemp oil, a product that Canada is a world leader in producing.

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